Monday, May 31, 2010

The Worst Oil Spill in US History

On the night of April 20th, 2010 a rush of methane gas up the well pipe to the sea surface occurred and the Deepwater Horizon Oil rig exploded, killing 11 workers and injuring 17. The oil well head, almost a mile deep, began gushing oil. For 40 days oil has gushed into the Gulf of Mexico. Initially it was reported that the oil was being released at a rate of 1.000 barrels a day. That estimate was shortly upped to 5,000 barrels a day. On May 27th the US Geological Survey estimated that the well was actually leaking 12,000-19,000 barrels of oil a day (between 504,000 and more than 1,000,000 gallons a day) making this the largest oil spill in US history. However, it may be even worse. The Marin e Science Institute at UC Santa Barbara which participated in creating the estimate issued a separate statement from their participating scientist, Dr. Ira Leifer, stating that the rate at which oil was spilling into the Gulf of Mexico was significantly larger than the 12,000-19,000 barrel a day estimate. There's almost as much uncertainty about what is happening to the oil already in the water. The oil slick observed so far has covered as much 28,958 square miles, with the exact size and location of the slick fluctuating from day to day depending on weather conditions. Scientists have also discovered underwater plumes of oil not visible from the surface.The extent of the plume is not fully known at this point and the impact from the chemicals being used to break up the oil so it degrades more easily is not known. These chemicals are being used in amounts and at water depths never before tried and the impact on the marine environment is unknown. This is an ecological disaster.

On April 20th the Deepwater Horizon Oil rig exploded. On April 22nd the Navy and Coast Guard were sent to fight the fire from the explosion. Since then, BP was left to respond to the spill and for days on end the oil catching booms sat idle. The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 mandates a National Response Team. Currently that consists of Homeland Security Secretary, a National Incident Commander and the on-site coordinator, the Coast Guard. For 40 days oil has flowed into the Gulf of Mexico at a rate of at least 500,000-1,000,000 gallons a day. For 40 days Louisiana officials have argued that keeping oil away from the coastline, protecting the estuaries, marshlands and beaches to protect not only the ecology of the area, but also the fishing and tourist industries was of first importance. For 40 days BP bumbled along trying different ideas to staunch the flow. The federal government has had more than a dozen congressional hearings and scores of hours of witness testimony but failed to deploy the military, the coast guard and call up the National Guard to protect Louisiana’s coastline. Great, we now have a federal government that is so bloated and inefficient that all they can do is have hearing to allot blame. The Director of the Minerals Management Service of the Federal Land Management Bureau was pushed to resign after 38 days of oil flowing into the Gulf.

BP and regulators widely believed that because there had never been such a catastrophic blowout in the Gulf, it would not happen. We were not prepared; we did not have an emergency plan or procedures to mitigate the impact from a catastrophic blowout. Inappropriate risk management took place and was compounded by inappropriate emergency response. Though BP has systematically tried to stop the flow by first an attempt to activate the blowout preventer valves, then by trying to dome the flow, then by trying to divert and capture the flow with an insertion tube, now by trying to plug the hold with mud and debris so they can once more try to dome the well head, they have made little if any progress and have wasted valuable time trying to figure out what to do. These plans should have already been in place for measures to stem the flow. These actions were always temporary emergency measures, an emergency response to prevent an ecological and economic catastrophe which is befalling Louisiana and the adjacent states. A permanent solution was and always will be to drill relief wells ahead of this well. On May 2, 2010, BP began drilling the first deep-water intercept relief well, which is located one-half mile from the Deepwater Horizon well, in a water depth of over a mile. A second relief well was begun on May 16. These wells are estimated to take 90 days to complete. This blowout required three prong actions, stemming the flow, capturing the released oil to protect the environment and ecological balance and the permanent solution of drilling a relief well. BP was left to putz around with no strategic plan of action, and piecemeal deploying of resources while our government kept “our foot on the neck of BP” whatever that means. We do; however, have a lovely government sponsored website with cool video clips and everything.

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